Saturday, December 17, 2011

Siren Productions, ‘The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’: Director’s Commentary

Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Dec 1-17

My review of Selina Cartmell’s highly anticipated The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore coming up just as soon as I marry you despite your teeth …

In my review of The Lulu House I briefly touched upon Cartmell’s directing style, a cinematically-endowed theatricality that unfolds action with the perceptivity of a film camera. Ever since, I have been intrigued and curious as to what statement, if any,  she is trying to make in this communion of forms. When the Project Arts Centre announced its winter season and Siren Productions’ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (which we knew was coming due to its continuous success in in the Arts Council Project Awards)  gained a “The Making of” in its title, it seemed hopeful that maybe Cartmell would show her cards. 

John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy has a history of being shunned by the canon for its unforgiving portrayal of incest. Giovanni the bright student has developed passionate feelings for his sister Annabella. Despite being pursued by suitors Saranzo and Bergetto, Annabella reciprocates her brother’s declarations of love. When she realises she has become pregnant, she hastily marries Saranzo to convince all that the child is his. Her plan does not work, and though she refuses to reveal her incestual relationship with Giovanni when Saranzo threatens her life, she is branded with the equally despicable title of “whore”.

Cartmell transplants her preoccupation with the camera on the stage quite literally and prominently, so much so that Louis Lovett’s Giovanni is ‘Tis Pity’s  film director, punching Ford’s text into a typewriter as the words simultaneously project onto a screen, a yo-yo beckoned back and forth at his command. Surrounded by a film crew equipped with cameras, boom mics, wardrobe, head-sets, coffee and make-up, it would appear that Cartmell is trying to allocate more power and authority to Giovanni. Characters such as Giovanni’s counsel the Friar (Tom Hickey), his and Annabella’s father Florio (Lorcan Cranitch), and Bergetto and his servant Poggio (Simon Delaney and Paul Reid) only appear in pre-recorded video clips.(*)

(*) There needs to be a Delaney/Reid comedy produced at some stage. They’re hilarious here.

I usually associate Lovett with his colourful and animated presence but here he is contained, brooding, replacing flamboyance with controlled and fiery passion. Both he and Kate Stanley Brennan perform the brother and sister’s exchange of vows with sweet intimacy, playfully rolling on the bed, he holding a super 8 camera as if to document and immortalise her beauty, she embarrassed. The scene works in strong juxtaposition to the later bedroom scene when Saranzo violently confronts Annabella as Phelim Drew swings a gun that holds the entire room in suspense. Despite the danger, Brennan still holds rebellion in her eyes. Indeed, for all the authority that the play historically asserts over women, this contemporary production presents them in all their fight and glamour, further epitomized by Cathy Belton’s scorned diva Hippolita, who at Saranzo and Annabella’s wedding stands above proceedings in a ruby dress, belting a thorny ballad at the betrothed. If you’re going to go down; go down fighting.

Conor Linehan’s musical arrangements seem to accompany the action almost throughout, and never once do they overstep or understate. Sassy keyboards move affairs along as occasional brass notes flare romantically. Sinead McKenna spills some noir lighting onto this slick production, conceived by a design team that includes Cara Christie, whose wonderful costume design receives its inspiration from early Italian cinema, and Sabine Dargent and her set that constantly reveals. Cartmell has a strong grasp of sceneography and has obviously worked closely with Dargent to obtain the clamour, angles, concealment and revelation she requires. One of the most effective of the director’s techniques is to use the crew members to rotate beds and tables during scenes to give the effect of a film camera panning.     

Still, there is no answers here as to if Cartmell is suggesting something about cinema and theatre or the rewards of their fusion. Perhaps it’s pedantic of me to think that such a mystery exists, but if it did it could shed some light for me. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Cartmell is trying to do with Ford’s ‘Tis Pity. We can rule out any attempt to exchange the play for postmodern capital in the way Pan Pan did with Hamlet in The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, possibly using cameras and virtual images to dissolve the text into some hyperreal pastiche; it’s clear that Cartmell is prioritising the text. She wants to tell this story. All I can think of is two possibilities: she is either staging ‘Tis Pity or a meta production of ‘Tis Pity. The first option would suggest that the film crew and set are nothing beyond scenic suggestion, like how Rough Magic’s Peer Gynt had a suggestion of a medical institution in its design. However, the play’s violent conclusion suggests that we are to accept them as something more absolute and integral to the action, as the discovery that Giovanni has not a prop heart at the end of his skewer but a real one is intended as a horrific breach of realism. It would be like Peer Gynt became Peer Gynt in a medical institution. It seems more likely that we’re investing in the second option but there is no considerable fleshing out of a meta parallel. Characters are all isolated to the world of ‘Tis Pity and do not have agency in the world of its production. Nor do the crew members develop their personae. It’s as if the play sits undecidedly between the “Whore and the “Making of”.

Still, there is no denying the unsettling  violence and psychological taboos of Ford’s tragedy that still protrudes today, nor the majestic gloss with which Siren Productions have presented it. I do look forward to the day though when Cartmell brings the vocabularies of theatre and cinema together for reasons beyond cosmetic brilliance.

What did everybody else think?

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